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In the African Union (AU), few call him by his full name. We give him « John », or more often “Doctor John”. John Nkengasong, the now famous virologist at the head of the African Union Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (Africa CDC), almost single-handedly embodies the fight against Covid 19 on the continent. Since the appearance of the first case in Egypt on February 14, 2020, and over successive waves, his message has remained the same: not to release the pressure on the pandemic, even if Africa may give the feeling of having been spared, compared to other parts of the world. As of November 3, nearly 8.5 million cases of SARS-CoV-2 contamination have been officially recorded on the continent as well as 218,471 deaths.
When we find him at the end of the morning of October in the offices of CDC Africa in Addis Ababa, the director has just completed his weekly press conference, followed every Thursday by hundreds of media. After four years at the head of the Pan-African institution, the one who can take advantage of « thirty-two years of experience in public health in Africa » has just been reappointed for a second term. A graduate of the University of Yaoundé and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, where he directed the virology and HIV diagnostic laboratory, in 1994 he took over the management of that of Abidjan, in Ivory Coast, emanation of the American CDC.
However, the time may have come for him to bow out to the continent and return to the United States, where he had previously been deputy director of the Center for Global Health, which oversees the American CDC, before settling in the Ethiopian capital. In September, US President Joe Biden appointed him to take the reins of the Emergency Aid Plan for the Fight against AIDS Abroad (Pepfar). A decision that must still validate the Senate in the coming weeks.
« It is a great honor and I thank President Biden », sketch the virologist, specialist in HIV and tuberculosis. Several sources within the AU confirm rumors of his departure, which should take place in early 2022. « I have come to help the African Union. At some point I will leave this post », he concludes. « He will obviously be missing, notes AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition (AVAC) Director Mitchell Warren, but I have confidence in this excellent team. »
If, for some, his departure may represent a huge loss of leadership for the Pan-African institution in these times of health crisis, John Nkengasong prefers not to dramatize. « We managed to create and give a real direction to the project, which has now imposed itself on African governments.. » His appointment at the head of Pepfar by Joe Biden has reacted to several personalities involved in the fight against HIV in Africa, including the director of UNAIDS. « Delighted », Winnie Byanyima a salué « an excellent choice ».
The decision is not official, the Cameroonian virologist is still dedicating all his time to the fight against the pandemic. « We must continue to fight Covid-19, because 40% of deaths in Africa have taken place in the past three months. » Deaths « avoidable » if vaccination campaigns had been more effective, he laments. Indeed, figures from the Africa CDC reveal that nearly ten countries on the continent have now entered their fourth wave of infections.
Omnipresent in the media and with governments, John Nkengasong now spends most of his time « to educate the populations and demand additional doses for Africa ». The native of Lebialem, a small department of the English-speaking region of South-West in Cameroon, is a reassuring and charismatic figure, but does not have his tongue in his pocket when he addresses the powerful, especially to denounce « vaccine starvation » of which the continent is a victim or the lack of solidarity of the countries of the North.
« The vaccination rate is too low », he protests. Less than 6% of the African population is fully vaccinated. To combat mistrust of vaccines, advocacy has taken center stage in CDC work. It goes in part through the fight against disinformation on social networks. « It’s a huge problem and the trends are very bad, warns his director. In my whole career, I have never felt so much mistrust. » To counter this, its image and that of the institution must be “Irreproachable”.
More generally, the virologist is carrying out long-term work to reassure Africans about the benefits of the vaccine. He knows it, his popularity weighs in the balance. Considered one of the hundred most influential people of 2021 by the American magazine Time, he does not hesitate to share his experience, especially when he himself has the coronavirus. Vaccinated in April, he was still ill with Covid-19 in August. « I am telling you very clearly that without the vaccine I will not be here today. » As a reminder that the injection alleviates the most severe symptoms and that « if the head of the CDC is reached, it proves that no one is immune ».
“We started from zero”
This “African hero of modern times”, always according to the Time, relies above all on the collective effort to get the vaccine accepted. As in South Sudan or in his native Cameroon, where major initiatives in collaboration with the Catholic Church have emerged to set up a vaccination campaign. « In Cameroon, 200,000 doses would expire quickly, so the Church agreed to work with the health authorities to restore residents’ confidence in public health.. » The priests, in their sermon, urged the faithful to go to the vaccination centers. An immediate success. « You have to understand who trusts whom to put in place effective responses », recalls “Dr John”.
Few of the institution’s missteps since the first case discovered in Egypt. In fact, it is even thanks to the anticipation of the Africa CDC that all the continent’s health ministers met on February 22, 2020 in the Ethiopian capital to organize a collective response. CDC Africa changed dimension from that moment. Created in 2016 ” from scratch “ to cope with the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, the pan-African health institution of the AU is now a pillar of the continent.
« We started from scratch, we had no office, no Wi-Fi, John Nkengasong has fun thinking back to the laborious beginnings. We were less than twenty employees and no one was betting on us. » Today, the Africa CDC has more than 150 employees and receives the confidence of many investors, including the Mastercard foundation, which has promised it $ 1.3 billion. A young, united and accomplice team, about which Dr John always has a word to say or an anecdote to tell.
By way of advice to his successor, the Cameroonian virologist slips a last message: ” The do not see the CDC as an organization to be managed, but as a building site in the process of improving health systems in Africa. »
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John Nkengasong, “modern hero” in the fight against Covid-19 in Africa